Alastair Reynolds and the Revelation Space universe

Defining sub-genres of science fiction is a difficult task as few authors limit themselves wholly to one form of expression.  I tend to like hard-science fiction, that is sci-fi that is based on science as we know it, although often taken to large extremes.  In general this means that  hard-sci-fi does not have faster than light technology or telekinesis or other easy plot devices in that manner.  If something on the order of, say, telekinesis is integral to the story, there is a technology based explanation for it such as microscopic smart-matter clouds linked to a brain implant or something similar.  A stretch, perhaps, but the explanation makes sense, especially in light of the current advanced in machine/brain interfaces.

Reconstruction of Video from Brain Activity

Another sub-genre that I particularly like is space-opera.  This is the genre that most people are familiar with, StarWars and Star Trek fall firmly in the space-opera category with faster than light drives, time travel, and the Force.  Space-opera tends to take place over an extended storyline, numerous years of TV series, multiple movies, and books of 6 or 7 hundred pages each in a series of 3, 4, 5, or more books.

One of my favorite science fiction authors straddles this line, leaning a bit to the hard-sci-fi side of things, but by no means neglecting the sweeping vision that constitutes space-opera.  His collection of books and short stories rides up against another sub-genre called future history, which I’ll go into in another post.

Alastair Reynolds is a Welsh astrophysicist who worked for the European Space Agency for about 16 years in the Netherlands before returning to Wales to focus on his writing more closely.  When he talks science you should listen because he spent a large portion of his time doing science.  My favorite books of his fall into the Revelation Space series.

Revelation Space cycle

The first book, the one the series derives its name from begins with an interstellar archaeology mystery on a desolate alien planet whose indigenous bird-like aliens went abruptly extinct a million years ago.

The setting is far in our future, half a millennium or so and humans have spread widely through the galaxy and have fragmented into a number of bizarrely diverse clades, some of whom are described in detail, others mentioned in passing.  Ultras maintain the trade network between inhabited planets, living vastly extended lives due to the relativistic effects of traveling aboard their four kilometer long self repairing lighthugger ships that roar though the interstellar space a mere fraction below the speed of light, driven by immensely powerful Conjioner drives.  The Conjoiners living at the edges of the solar systems and Demarchists on and around the massive titan-like moon/planet Yellowstone aslo have extended lives, because they have infused heir bodies with microscopic medichines.  Engineered primates work in ship repair holds, ship-rats are part of the immune system of starships, and intelligent pigs gather in human killing gangs.

Two of the driving themes throughout all the books and short stories are how different human factions deal with one-another as they diversify, and the question of where are all the aliens.

The latter question is known as Fermi’s Paradox.  By all rational accounts the galaxy should be teeming with life, and at least some of that life should be intelligent and technologically savvy.  So where is it all?  Admittedly, despite the best efforts of SETI, we have not looked for long, nor over a very large area, but the question remains.  Alastair Reynolds proposes an answer, but it won’t make you sleep better at night.

In fact, much of his work is dark, very much so, with heavy Gothic overtones and characters who are ruthless in a society that has been in conflict and danger for much of its history.

His characters are interesting, insightful, and complex, driven by their egos, morals, and intellectual curiosity.  They are people put in difficult situations and forced to make hard choices, people who are resourceful and unique.  Problems in Alastair Reynolds’ universe are not easily solved, have no simple solutions, and violence is often not an effective solution as the characters are often far outmatched in their capacity to employ violence.  Information is the powerful tool, and what many of the characters seek.

As you can tell, I love this series.  It does not have to be read in order.  There is a temporal sequence to the stories, but the tales themselves stand alone, though some of the characters move between them and actions in one books affect the outcomes in other books.  A number of short story collections also take place within this universe, and make for good reading.

Alastair Reynolds has some other books as well, Pushing Ice, Century Rain, and Terminal City to name a few, but, with the exception of Pushing Ice, I was not so fond of those books.  My personal preference.  To me they seemed to lack the depth of any of the Revelation Space books, though they had interesting ideas and were well written.